The Smith's Journal - May 2008

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Vitae Drummers perform at Landy and Linda's party

Tags: Drumming

Vitae Drummers celebrated the birthdays of two of their own, and raised £399 for the Water Aid charity. Pictures are now online.


The Umpteenth Peace In Nature Walk [POSTPONED]

Tags: Places, Eco

The Umpteenth Peace In Nature Walk: "BLUE BELLS IN PARADISE" was postponed for another year because I was supposed to be Elsewhere instead...

Tibetan Bowls performance in a mellow place in the wilderness [CANCELLED]

Tags: Music, Places, Eco

A group of humans gathered in enchanted Welsh woodlands in the hills of mid-Wales to celebrate nature and music. I was invited to give a performance of magical Tibetan singing bowls there, but alas fell ill so never made it. Instead I stayed at home and enjoyed my own little bluebell wood.


Vitae Drummers perform at Wycombe Arts Festival

Tags: Drumming

Vitae Drummers performed for a third time at Wycombe Arts Festival beside The Church in High Wycombe town centre.


Mamady Keita at RGS!!!

Tags: Drumming

[ Mamady Keita teaching us in May 2008 ]OMG! Mamady Keita, THE MASTER of djembe came to Britain again! His first visit was a series of performances way back in 1969, and then he returned three decades later to teach some workshops in London. This time a weekend of workshops was organised by Djembeschool and HartBeats, all held at the RGS in High Wycombe. This was totally insane since it's our weekly rehearsal venue; it was so hilarious that instead of a normal session taught by Justine, instead we had the man himself in the hot seat!

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Mamady Keita teaches the teachers

Tags: Drumming

Mamady's first session was on the Friday night, to give a class specially for the djembe teachers of Britain. He arrived with his entourage of dun dun players and family, including his grown-up son and baby daughter, and his wife Monette, who runs the San Diego division of his Tam Tam Mandingue djembe school. One of Mamady's top students from Belgium and the other Seckou Keita were also here, along with Iya, a friend of Mamady's from a neighbouring Guinean village; overall they made a formidable ensemble.

Mamady speaks some English in addition to the many other languages he uses, but prefers French for teaching, with the occasional common English phrases. So usually his wife or Eliza from Djembeschool provided translations of anything complex. He began by welcoming everyone and introduced his plans for the weekend. He said that after thirty years of teaching the tradition, he now felt qualified to expand upon it, and add some of his own compositions. All traditional rhythms were once new, made up by somebody and later became well-respected and played to this day. He hoped that in two hundred years people might be playing some of his music, even if his name is forgotten. So all of the seven rhythms taught over this weekend were new pieces he'd written within the last year. Some appear on his (fabulous!) latest album Mandeng Djara.

First up was Keiko, for which he demonstrated the groovy dun dun parts one by one, and then got us playing the djembe accompaniments while his posse played the dun duns. His baby daughter walked freely around the room (at that exploratory age) and would occasionally come and hit a drum, eventually falling asleep in Mama's arms as she reclined in a chair while pounding away on the dununba with a free hand :-) When not nursing her little one, Monette gave some fiery performances on solo djembe; she's also a fine kit drummer and latin percussionist.

Soon we had the piece rocking, and so we all swapped to play one of the twenty dun duns set up around the edge of the circle, to learn how the parts interlocked. I was, however, expecting rather more from the teachers of Britain, many of whom were not great players at all; sadly many music teachers just play 'African drums' without really knowing the tradition or correct technique. At least those present were trying to address the issue.

Mamady ended by asking if we had any questions. I should have asked quite a few things, but saved my most pressing question for the next day.


Mamady Keita workshops: Day 1

Tags: Drumming

Wow! Mamady only teaches groups of up to seventy (!) players, but thankfully there were only fifty in each group in the Main Hall of the Royal Grammar School, which made things a tad more intimate. His attention to detail was incredible: he was keen to ensure that everyone was sitting as closely together as possible, with no empty chairs in the circle. This is because he needs to see everyone's hands and watched us all like a hawk. I was amazed later on to catch him smiling at me when he noticed I'd found the correct technique; he was fully aware of everything going on in this huge room.

I sat in to watch the Intermediate class, where some of my students and fellow band members were, so that I could take notes of what they were learning, before playing in the Advanced session later. Mamady allowed (and encouraged) participants (but not audience) to record the sessions for future study, but video was not allowed, and neither was publishing recordings on U-Tube! On the first day, he taught Kenya to the Level 1 players (I missed this class though), and Koudani (sp?) to the Level 2 players. Afterwards, Level 3 players learned a very complex rhythm called Matoto, named after the courtyard where they played in Conakry, Guinea, which has become the scene of many newly forged friendships.

How to play slaps and tones

Tags: Drumming

I had promised myself and my students that I would ask The Master how to correctly play slaps. So without fear of making a fool of myself in front of the UK's finest djembe players in the advanced workshop (many of whom also needed to know!), I asked Mamady to elucidate how his slap tones are so fine. Is there any special technique: should hands be near the edge or right in on the skin? I had to ask this because in my fifteen years of djembe study, no teacher ever really explained how to make slaps sound correctly. Some Africans seemed to not even change their hand shape or position but still be able to make distinctly different sounds, whereas many English players play slaps far in but open tones near the edge, which is what I'd been doing. Others had said that tones and slaps should be played at the same place, to avoid wasting time moving hands from one position to the other. Recently, I'd been trying to play both slaps and tones in the same place near the edge, and it seems easy to make very high slaps like this, but they are not very controllable and it does damage your fingers, so can't be right.

My question brought much laughter from the room, and Mamady was quick to denounce playing at the edge: "bongos are played there, but djembe is here", moving his hand further in so that the fleshy underside of the palm is on the rim of the drum. Playing tones here is something I'd not even considered before, and so I'm experimenting and learning. It is uncanny when you first acquire the ability to hit the same point of the skin yet make different sounds! The main reason this is better is simply the ergonomics of the drum: it is designed so that your hands rest on the side, with the fleshy part of your hand (where the Life Line is) absorbing impacts to prevent injury. This is why all older drummers' hands have callouses here. More importantly, the force of your playing is all directed onto the skin. If you are playing at the edge, much of your energy (focused in the centre of gravity of your hand) is going down off the side of the drum and your wrist must stop the motion continuing downwards, which is clearly inefficient. This is something I'd never considered until now, but is obvious once you realise. It will be fun (challenging!) re-educating all of my students, but I can at least assert that none of them has as much un-learning to do as my fifteen years of playing!

He then added that playing djembe is something which takes years/decades of dedicated practice and cannot be just taught like other instruments. If you don't practise, you will not have good sound. It is a lot of work. This I knew. Then he proceeded to blow away the entire room by giving a short demonstration of effortless control of harmonics, casually producing three recognisable differently pitched sounds, at will, resulting in rapturous applause :-)

Finally he added more wisdom, in English this time:

"But you have to go slowly, slowly. Give time to djembe. OK? You give time. And the djembe have to know if you love him, or if you don't love him. Because he live."

At this point the Master was interrupted by the entire hall bursting into laughter upon seeing his 1-year old daughter slowly and carefully removing his wallet from his jacket pocket hanging behind him on his chair! ;-)

African Music & Dance Night

Tags: Music, Drumming

After the drumming workshops, began a mammoth night of African Music & Dance featuring among others African high-life maestro King Masco from Sierra Leone. It all kicked off with a dance session led by Landing Mane, teaching hundreds of dancers in the Hall. I spent most of the evening chatting to Dennis on door duty, guarding the kitty and starting the occasional flurry of fake violence just to keep everyone alert.

Professional djembe

Tags: Drumming, Pro

[ Professional Guinean djembe ]For me the major event of the evening was acquiring a professional djembe: a superb thing that is in a different class altogether to my other drums. Seeing everyone else playing proper drums today, and then going to check out the stall afterwards, run by the chap from Tam Tam Mandingue school in Belgium, it was clear I had to go for it. Justine (my teacher/bandleader/accomplice) made me do it, saying that "it is now my job to sound good". She's right. Hilariously six other members of Vitae Drummers also bought one of these masterpieces! It is awesome to find this many proper drums for sale in one place - even better that they will now be all in our group! ;-)

I could hardly wait to get this awesome machine home to my empty neighbourless house and start the journey of learning how to play it well. I was up until 3am...

My first few days with it have been very productive; I have the basic controls sorted and am refining strap and posture. I also discovered my drum is tuned perfectly to D :-) And when I say tuned, I really mean it: this is a proper instrument. The bass is low D, the tone is D two octaves above that and the slap is A a fifth above that (plus other harmonics are possible... one day...)!

It is a total work of art: the wood, skin and rope are all superb. It's really hard to believe it could have been made by a human, but the beautiful shell of acajou wood was carved by Issa Rabe and decorated by Almami in Guinea. It's clearly a highly evolved object that shows a very advanced culture, which our feeble developing nation can only try to learn from. It has immense presence. It's huge and very loud, even with earplugs!


Mamady Keita workshops: Day 2

Tags: Drumming

I returned on the Sunday, and camera in hand, did my best to shimmy up a scaffolding tower in the corner of the Hall to get some aerial shots of the master leading the vast circle of fifty djembes!

[ Mamady Keita djembe workshop | Mamady Keita djembe workshop | Mamady Keita djembe workshop | Iya, Mamady, Seckou and Seckou Keita | Djembe students ]

I'd missed the Level 1 session in the morning, where they'd learned the rhythm called Sira. In the afternoon, the intermediates learned another new rhythm called Bele Bele, and then the advanced group studied Kedju, the latter also being on his latest album.

[ Steve with Mamady Keita ]At the end of the day, he gave an impassioned speech, translated by Monette, explaining, with the dignity of a statesman like Nelson Mandela, how the the spirit of the djembe is a unifying voice of peace in the world.

"It is not just made for Africans, and anybody can play it, for the whole world to enjoy. The djembe has become a tool for people to encounter each other, to interact, people that come from different cities, different countries, different continents, different cultures. If only people would sit together in a circle and play djembe, there would be no problem."

He also said he hopes to return to Britain next year, probably touring with his band Sewa Kan (although he doesn't teach when on tour, and vice versa).

I'm still riding a massive wave of euphoria from this monumental weekend of new knowledge, and have been totally dazed since leaving. Tonight I started reading the wonderful Mamady Keita book about Malinke rhythms, A Life for the Djembe, which is another milestone for me in addition to meeting the man himself. At last I have a bible which has notation and detailed notes for many rhythms, plus a CD with 84(!) tracks of the individual parts. I am going to strongly urge everyone to read this book which is bursting with light and love. I need to buy another copy for general use though because he's signed this one ;-)


Saved from a serious Trough

Tags: Drumming, Pro

Tonight my new drum saved me from a dangerous Trough, the inevitable downward slope after a stratospheric weekend. This drum has big magic inside, and a very serious longing to be played that I am trying to satisfy. It seems I now need to practise for at least two hours per day, in addition to my teaching. I'm not sure how I can do this, but for at least this week, I need to try and sustain the energy level imparted by Mamady. If I can make it to Sunday I feel he and the drum will be on my side during performance. If so, there are no limits.

[UPDATE: Alas, I got ill and fell off my regime; and so my performance did not meet my high standards.]


Carnival In Babylon [POSTPONED]

Tags: Music

This party has been postponed.

DJ Spock presents a psychedelic Saturday night of music by Amon Duul II and other luminaries of groovy Krautrock.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Licence © The right to copy is left with the user copyleft Malcolm Smith 2008-01-01 - last updated 2008-08-05